For Czechoslovakia, the 1980s ended in a mood of optimism as its citizens anticipated a future of freedom and democracy: the peaceful Velvet Revolution had disposed of the country’s 41-year communist regime. But the rest of the decade was not covered in such glory. Since the quashing of the Prague Spring by the Soviets in 1968, the Czechoslovakian government had been among the most submissive in the Eastern Bloc. While there were high-profile expressions of dissent such as Charter 77 and the publications of the Jazz Section of the Musicians’ Union, there was no popular movement for change even to compare with Solidarity in neighbouring Poland.
Amid this atmosphere of submission and inertia, a few isolated individuals were plotting violent action against the state. Three of them appear in the surrealist documentary Velvet Terrorists. All three served significant prison sentences for terrorism, though – be it through careful planning or farce – none of them actually killed or injured anyone. Stano planned to blow up a May Day parade tribune; Fero to assassinate Czechoslovakian president Gustáv Husák; and Vladimír detonated 53 Communist Party billboards.
We meet these three men as they go about their present-day lives, each telling their respective stories through montages showing tongue-in-cheek re-enactments of their crimes – or in many cases visualisations of how their crimes might have looked had they been spectacularly successful. Each performs these reconstructions alongside an accomplice who acts as a conduit for the audience – in Stano’s case, a woman he is dating, for Fero, his teenage sons, and in the case of Vladimír, a young woman he selects to train for a life of violent subversion.
Limited to the men’s narration alone, the stories would sound a bit like a drunken uncle telling his nephews and nieces a highly embellished version of the “glories” of his youth, but the cinematic visualisation (with the aid of a high volume of live ammunition and home-made explosive) makes the film a compelling look at the boundaries between fantasy, memory and truth. There is also a great deal of humour, as well as pathos, as we hear about the men’s suffering under the communists and see how they fit in with mainstream society now just as little as they did in their 70s and 80s heyday.
While Velvet Terrorists provides entertaining and revealing portraits of its three subjects, its scrutiny of their motives often falls short, and it misses any opportunity seriously to explore the ethics and effectiveness of armed resistance: there was, it seems, far greater potential for analysing the relationship between such radical resistance and the wider civic dissidence which accompanied it – and for comparing the violent upheaval these men were pushing for and the Velvet Revolution which emerged – bloodlessly – in its place.
The films at this year’s ‘Made in Prague’ Festival have shown a variety of approaches towards the portrayal of true stories. The Way Out presented dramatised versions of the cast’s own lives; In Silence rendered first-person accounts of holocaust survivors into a stylised cinematic poem; Citizen Havel used the documentary to explore the private life of one of the Czech Lands’ most famous sons. With its ever-shifting boundaries between reality and fantasy, Velvet Terrorists takes perhaps the most novel approach. All of these films are a credit to a Czech film industry clearly unafraid to explore the sometimes murky depths of the country’s recent history and contemporary society.
Pavel Pekarčík, Ivan Ostrochovský and Peter Kerekes’s Velvet Terrorists was part of the ‘Made in Prague’ Festival (2nd-30th November), organised by the Czech Centre, London.